The Risks of ‘Knowing’ The Rules

 

All through our lives we learn ‘rules’. Anything from ‘Wash your hands before dinner’ to ‘Good goals are SMART goals’ and even ‘All men are #%s*#%^*’.

Is it a good idea to ‘know’ the rules? Well, it depends.

Robert Sternberg and Peter Frensch (1989) were interested in exploring this. They pitted expert and novice Bridge players against a computer. Of course, the experts understood the rules of Bridge more fully than the novices. So, when the computer played according to the usual rules of Bridge, the expert players did well (no surprises there!). But then the researchers fundamentally altered the rules of the game and the novices then outperformed the experts. The novices adjusted to the change more quickly whereas the experts kept following the rules of Bridge even when they weren’t playing Bridge anymore.

Other psychology studies have come up with similar results. When we think we know the rules, we can be slow to notice when things have changed and we can tend to persist in behaviour that often doesn’t work.

When you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, even when you aren’t getting the outcomes that you want. When you notice that your behaviour has a driven, inflexible quality … pause…breathe…notice what is actually happening in the world (rather than what your mind is telling you is happening) and then consider choosing a different action that is more likely to work in that moment.

We Can’t Get Rid Of Our Mental Junk – So What Do We Do Instead?

The Big Clear Out

People in my neighborhood are throwing out their junk. They are sorting out their stuff and leaving it on the side of the road. In a few days some lovely people from the council will come and take it all away. Wonderful!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that with the junk in our minds? If we could choose which of the rules about ourselves and the world that we carry around in our minds, no longer work for us and just get rid of them?

Sadly, behaviorism tells us that this isn’t possible. We can’t unlearn something (unless we are willing to suffer brain damage – which seems a little extreme!). We can only add to our learning.

Let me give you an example. When I was a medical student I learnt that it was a very bad thing to make a mistake. When I practiced medicine, this was usually a very good rule to follow. I think my patients were glad I took that approach!

However, I don’t practice medicine anymore. Although doing an excellent job is still very important to me and my clients, generally it isn’t a disaster if I make a mistake. In fact, trying too hard to avoid mistakes can impair my capacity to do a good job. I can end up being too much of a perfectionist.

I can’t unlearn the rule I learnt as a medical student. It will always be with me. But what I can do is learn some new ways of behaving so I have more options. And I can get better at recognising when an old rule like ‘I mustn’t make any mistakes’ isn’t appropriate and 80% is good enough.

What internal rules do you have that are no longer useful for you?

When Your Mind is Saying: ‘You Just Aren’t Good Enough’

I want to tell you a secret…I have a fierce ‘I am not good enough story’ running today. It has been in my face on and off most of the day.

What triggered it? My dear friend and co-blogger, Rob Archer, has written four really good posts in the last few weeks. In case you missed them, there are two on values here and here and two on talent management here and here. They are really good. I feel intimidated. My mind is telling me how embarrassing it must be for Rob to have to put up with my inarticulate ramblings on this blog. I have a strong impulse to delay posting until I come up with something absolutely brilliant.

So what do I do?

I breathe…and pause for a moment. I lean into myself with kindness. I acknowledge that this ‘I am not good enough’ story has been around for many years. If I dig around, I can even find my first memory of it (I was 4 and got in trouble at school for needing to go to the bathroom during class – let’s just say that the incident ended with me wearing some borrowed knickers from the school knicker cupboard). This story is an old friend that visits me often. And I know that it is trying to help, trying to keep me safe. To protect me from further ‘knicker cupboard’ embarrassment. I also acknowledge to myself that I am not the only person in the world that has that story running now and again.

And I think ‘What do my values tell me to do here?‘ This endeavour – Working with ACT – really matters to me. Being authentic and real really matter to me.

So here I am writing away…whilst my mind whispers, ‘This is rubbish, who wants to read this’.  Thanks mind.

How to Evolve a More Vital Life

If you are reading this blog, you are probably the sort of person who wants a life that is vital.  According to Steve Hayes, ACT helps us to evolve more vitality by:

1.Undermining Repertoire Narrowing Processes 

What this means in everyday language is that when we are in the grip of strong emotions or have been hooked by painful thoughts our behaviour tends to narrow down and become inflexible. ACT aims to lessen this tendency so that we can choose our behaviour from a broader range of options. This means we can stop doing what we have always done (which tends to get us what we have always got) and start choosing our behaviour based on the circumstances and our values.

2. Situating action in the conscious present

Instead of our actions being triggered by memories of the past, or fears about the future, or inflexible rules; we observe the world as it is and take action based on this connection to the present moment.

3. Choosing your selection criteria

Rather than accepting the criteria the world has given us for what constitutes success or ‘correct’ behaviour, we choose our own values and use these values to guide our actions.

And so we evolve a more vital life

Flexibly choosing our behaviour based on both our values and what the situation offers, enables us to create more richness and vitality in our lives.

The research is growing that the approaches taken by ACT are successful in achieving these outcomes, which is rather cool for those of us interested in empirically supported interventions.

How Using ACT in the Workplace Could Change Almost Everything – Some Slides

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the ANZ ACT conference with an extraordinary group of ACT practitioners who, like Rob and I, are committed to using best practice to create workplaces where people find meaning and purpose in their work.

The session was wonderful – although I did keep having the thought that it would have been even better if Rob had been there with me!

Here are the slides for that session: ACT in the Workplace ANZACT 2011

The session was a reprise of a session that Rob and I delivered at Parma – a detailed handout for that session is here.

Influencing our Thoughts and Feelings

We all have times when we want to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings. It would be odd if we didn’t – pain is unpleasant and wanting it to go away is sensible.

What strategies have you tried to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

You might have tried:

  • Distracting yourself (focussing on something else or doing something useful);
  • Soothing yourself  (taking some slow, deep breaths; eating some chocolate; finding someone to reassure you)
  • Challenging the thoughts (Is it really true that I am lazy?)
  • Problem solving the issue that caused the pain (I am anxious because I am running late delivering this project so I will come up with a workable plan to get it finished on time).

Often these strategies are helpful BUT (yes, it is a big but!) they don’t work all the time and the times when they don’t work are often when we are most distressed. At those times nothing seems to stop our mind thrashing about. When we engage with those thoughts and try to make our mind see sense, we often actually increase how hooked we are. When we try to hold back or change the direction of the waves of emotional pain that are buffeting us, we just get exhausted.

The A in ACT stands for Acceptance. One of the things we may need to accept is that although we may be able to influence our thoughts and feelings, we can’t control them and sometimes in trying to control them we get actually get more hooked.

So what could we do instead? The best option seems to be to use mindfulness:

  • Observing our thoughts and feelings with curiosity and compassion
  • Allowing our feelings to rise and fall
  • Letting our thoughts come and go
  • Bringing our attention to this moment now – what we are experiencing through our five senses
  • Connecting with our valuesWho do I really want to be? And then,
  • Taking action based on our values.

Psychological Flexibility and the Miracle of Istanbul

This is a story about what Liverpool Football Club has taught me about happiness, pain and meaning.

I love Liverpool FC, but I am also what’s known as an ‘armchair’ fan. That is, I support Liverpool but don’t go to the match very often.

In 2005, Liverpool staged the most astonishing run to the final of the European Cup that has ever been seen. With a truly average team, and defying huge odds, they beat many superior teams along the way, including incredible comebacks (Olympiakos) and heroic performances (Chelsea).  It was incredible, and now they would play the mighty AC Milan in Istanbul.

In nearly every position AC Milan had the better players than Liverpool – in fact the miracle was they were there at all.

At the time, I remember that I really wanted to go to the final. I thought about it very hard but I worried about the cost involved. I even found a ticket and a convoluted journey that would have got me to Istanbul in time.  I would have loved to have gone, but in the end I narrowly decided against it.

Why?

Because deep down, I thought Liverpool would lose, and I wanted to spare myself the pain of being there when they did.

And as it turned out, I was right. Because at half time in Istanbul Liverpool were 3-0 down. They were outclassed as predicted, and I was gutted, watching on TV.

But I was also a bit relieved I hadn’t gone, because I couldn’t have handled the pain of watching my beloved team humiliated on the biggest stage of all.  Plus what a waste of money!

Beloved….

For some people, their love of Liverpool is so great that they go to every single match. Irrespective of where it is, how they’re feeling, who it’s against, whether Liverpool are likely to win, they will be there. They love Liverpool, and they live that love. They feel the pain when the Reds lose, but they keep turning up, through the wind and rain.  At halftime in Istanbul, these people sang You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Just after half time Liverpool scored a consolation goal.  Relief!  They had avoided humiliation.  But then, they scored again….

What followed is easily the most astonishing match in any sport I have ever witnessed. Liverpool eventually triumphed amid scenes of utter joy, elation and incredulity – which I had witnessed from a bar in Farringdon.

Just imagine what it would have been like to be there.

And there we have it.

Happiness and sadness are not opposites, but twins. They either grow big and strong together, or they stay small and weak together. By being willing to be sad, I grow my capacity for happiness. By accepting pain, I open my life to joy.

For the real fans in Istanbul they will always be able to say; I was there.

For me, I have the satisfaction of having played it safe, lessening my pain.

Not got quite the same ring has it?